Is Richard Prince a "trolling genius" or a plain old rip-off merchant? Prince's New Portraits series sparked furious debate this week when some of the images were shown at Frieze Art Fair in New York, simply because of his creative process – he'd not really made anything, just stolen people's Instagrams, mainly from one feed called Suicide Girls, an account with 3.3 million followers that posts pictures of tattooed women in seductive poses. Prince sold one of his works for $90,000; in retaliation, Suicide Girls founder Missy Suicide offered to sell her own prints for $90, with any proceeds going to charity.
For what it's worth, Missy Suicide doesn't really give a fuck about what Prince is doing. Writing on the Suicide Girls website, she said: "Richard Prince is an artist and he found the images we and our girls publish on Instagram as representative of something worth commenting on, part of the zeitgeist, I guess? Thanks Richard! I’m just bummed that his art is out of reach for people like me and the people portrayed in the art he is selling."
Is Prince's work ethically sound? Is there something immoral about taking other people's photos altering them slightly and selling them for huge money; or is this just the creative world we're in, a merry-go-round of images all democratically available to anyone who wants them? Is Prince just sampling, a widely accepted form of artistic repurposing? Here at Dazed, we have two writers who fundamentally disagree on the topic. Here's what they think – we'd like to hear your thoughts too.
So Richard Prince has sparked controversy. Again. His art might be focussed on appropriating digital narcissism at the moment, but for Prince, acts of creative borrowing are nothing new. He’s been doing this for 40 years, elevating the mundane by re-photographing and re-contextualising images including magazine ads, soft porny 80s biker babes and most famously, a shot of a nude (and heavily made-up) 10-year-old Brooke Shields. Prince titled it Spiritual America, using the image to play with culture’s moral panics around the sanctity and sexualisation of children. It was exhibited at the Tate in 2009, and then promptly removed by the police.
The banal questions of “but is this ART???” and “but is this ALLOWED???” that are surely getting banded around with face-palming frequency right now distract from the deeper issues Prince’s Instagram series raises about the world we live in. We now have generations growing up who never knew life without the internet, and as a culture have largely moved away from the pseudonyms and anonymous online identities of the 90s to become totally at ease with exploring and exposing ourselves online, hurling our emotions, selfies and most mundane musings into the void, often signing over our ownership of them in the hope that someone, somewhere, will hit “like”.
Ultimately, art should trouble us, cause us to argue, to question the world around us – and in this case, think about the implications of the images we send out blindly into the wilds of the internet. Yes, it’s ridiculous that the stuff hanging up in galleries costs so much, but Prince has also given people the opportunity to acquire his work for tiny amounts – an Instagram picture of Grimes was used for a recent limited edition cover of POP magazine, sold for under £10. Art critic Jerry Saltz has come out on Prince’s side, defending him on CNN and Instagram saying – “Artists use materials. Images are materials.” He’s not his only supporter: “A lot of great art makes people angry at first,” said Pope of Trash filmmaker John Waters, himself no stranger to disturbing conventions of a medium. “Richard never made me angry. But he did shock, and he did startle me, and he did make me laugh.”
Yeah, the Old Masters are great and all, but to me, that’s what art is about. Anyway, he seems to be having the last laugh, retweeting and reposting haters on his Twitter. Richard, do what you want.
Emma Hope Allwood, Fashion Features Writer
Appropriation is one thing. Israeli artist Omer Fast did it brilliantly, piecing together news broadcasts in “CNN Concatenated”. British artist Christian Marclay stitched together clips of popular films for a 24-hour timepiece entitled “The Clock”. He won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. What Prince is doing is nihilistic and very different – he’s taking normal people's photos, not those belonging to massive institutions or studios, and using them for his own, not particularly clever, artwork.
Is what Richard Prince doing legal? Technically speaking, yes. The legalese for appropriation falls under Fair Use. Basically, if you tweak something just enough, it can become something completely original. That’s why there are so many bad remixes of “Drunk in Love” stumbling around the internet. Richard Prince landed himself in hot water for doing something similar in 2013, where he swiped images from a photo book documenting photographer Patrick Cariou's time in Jamaica with Rastafarians, titled Yes Rasta. In this case, Prince adds creepy uncle comments to the Instagram photos, making them entirely “original” (sample on an image of a girl in a white swimsuit, nipples perked: "Nice. Let's hook up next week. Lunch, Smiles R.”) To think about it in a fashion context, perhaps what he’s doing isn’t so different from Urban Outfitters ripping off a tiny artist’s design without permission, whacking on a massive price tag and selling it to the masses.
The absolute worst part about this art is not that this millionaire artist is raking it in, nor that the true owners of the photos he’s appropriated don’t get a share of the profits. That sucks, obviously, as that selfie probably took some time to perfect. The worst part are that his tweaks to these images are lazy. It’s like a student who pulled an all-nighter on his art project, or the birth of yet another “Drunk in Love” remix that the world doesn't need.
Trey Taylor, Film Editor